David Copperfield: Chapters XV-XVIII

 Chapter XV: I make another beginning
David settles into his new life. He and Mr. Dick become friends and fly Mr. Dicks kite together. Betsey gives David a new name, Trotwood Copperfield, or “Trot” for short. She decides that David should go to school in Canterbury, a proposal that he welcomes. Betsey and David travel to the house of Mr. Wickfield in Canterbury. Mr. Wickfield is a friend of Betseys and a lawyer. At the house, David meets Mr. Wickfields employee, Uriah Heep, a sinister young man with red hair and red eyes. Mr. Wickfield and Betsey visit the school and decide that it is suitable for David, though Betsey does not approve of the boarding houses that are available. It is agreed that Mr. Wickfield will accommodate David in his house until something better turns up.
Mr. Wickfield introduces David to his charming and devoted daughter, Agnes, whom he describes as the “one motive” of his life. David, Mr. Wickfield, and Agnes dine together. After dinner, David comes across Uriah, and shakes his hand. He is so revolted by Uriahs clammy touch that he wants to rub it off.
Chapter XVI: I am a new boy in more senses than one
David goes to the school and meets the headmaster, Dr. Strong, and his young wife, Annie. Dr. Strong and Mr. Wickfield discuss their attempts to find some occupation for Annies cousin, Jack Maldon. Mr. Wickfield asks whether Dr. Strong would prefer Jack to go abroad, but Dr. Strong insists that he does not mind whether the post is in England or abroad.
Dining at Mr. Wickfields house, David learns from Agnes that her mother died when Agnes was born. Jack Maldon arrives and tells Mr. Wickfield that he will leave to take up his position abroad without delay. Mr. Wickfield says the sooner Jack leaves, the better. Jack speaks disrespectfully of Dr. Strong, drawing attention to the fact that Dr. Strong is older than Annie, and then leaves. After dinner, Mr. Wickfield drinks a great deal of alcohol. David notes that Agnes is a force for goodness, peace, and truth, and that she cares deeply for her father. He feels that she has a beneficial influence on him (David). Mr. Wickfield invites David to stay with them permanently, and David gladly agrees.
David finds Uriah in the office, studying legal texts. Uriah tells David that Mr. Wickfield is paying for him to take his lawyers examinations. Uriah adds that if it were not for Mr. Wickfield, he and his mother, being “umble” (humble, or poor and low-born) people, could never have afforded this training. Uriah asks David if he admires Agnes, and writhes with pleasure when David replies that everyone must admire her.
Dr. Strongs school proves excellent, and David does well, quickly catching up in his studies. The boys love Dr. Strong, a kind, scholarly man who plans one day to complete his great work, a dictionary.
Dr. Strong and his wife treat each other with great affection. Annie has a large number of poor relatives, including her mother, Mrs. Markleham. The schoolboys nickname Mrs. Markleham “the Old Soldier” on account of her skill in marshalling great forces of relatives against Dr. Strong in order to get money and other favors from him. One evening, the Strongs hold a party to celebrate Dr. Strongs birthday and to bid farewell to Jack Maldon, who is leaving to take up a post in India. Mrs. Markleham encourages Dr. Strong to keep up his generosity to members of her family. Dr. Strong cheerfully assents. Annie tries to sing a duet with Jack, but becomes too emotional to continue. Everyone drinks a toast to Jacks success in India, and as he leaves, David notices that he has one of Annies red ribbons in his hand. Annie faints. Dr. Strong tends to her, pointing out that Jack was her favorite cousin.
Chapter XVII: Somebody turns up
David receives a letter from Peggotty telling him that the furniture at his mothers house has been sold, that the Murdstones have moved away, and that the house is to be let or sold.
Mr. Dick asks David if he knows the identity of the man who hides near Betseys house and frightens her by creeping up behind her. One night, she was so frightened that she fainted. Mr. Dick has seen Betsey give him money. David has no idea who the man is.
Mr. Dick takes to visiting the school, and becomes a good friend of Dr. Strongs.
Uriah invites David to tea with him and his mother. David cannot decide whether he likes Uriah or detests him, but he agrees to the invitation because he does not wish to be thought too proud to visit the Heeps, as Uriah suggests he might be. David offers to teach Uriah some Latin to help with his law studies, but Uriah insists that he is too humble; he does not wish to outrage the feelings of his superiors by becoming too learned.
David accompanies Uriah to his mothers house. Mrs. Heep is an older version of her son, and is equally keen to impress David with her humbleness. The Heeps pump David for information about Mr. Wickfield and Agnes, and David, not wanting to appear aloof, lets out more than he intends. He begins to feel manipulated. The gathering is interrupted by the appearance of Mr. Micawber, who happened to be passing in the street and saw David through the open door. David introduces Mr. Micawber to the Heeps.
David accompanies Mr. Micawber to the hotel where he and his family are staying. Mrs. Micawber tells David that her husband did not succeed in finding a job in Plymouth and that her relatives there did not make them welcome. They are once again in a perilous financial situation.
The next day, David feels uneasy when he sees Mr. Micawber walking arm-in-arm with Uriah. Despite the Micawbers poverty, David enjoys a lavish dinner with them, at which they are very merry. However, the next day, he receives a letter from Mr. Micawber lamenting that he is unable to pay his hotel bill and that he expects his imminent “destruction.” Alarmed, David hurries to the hotel, but is relieved to see the Micawbers looking cheerful aboard the coach to London.
Chapter XVIII: A retrospect
David recalls his time at Dr. Strongs school. He falls in love with a girl called Miss Shepherd, who attends a nearby school, and thereafter with a thirty-year-old woman called Miss Larkins. He fights a young butcher who insults him, and is soundly beaten. He is consoled by Agnes, who has become like a sister to him.
David, now seventeen years old, becomes head boy at the school.
Analysis of Chapters XV-XVIII
This section of the novel introduces one of Dickens most memorable characters, Uriah Heep. Uriahs circumstances have much in common with Davids. A product of a deprived background, Uriah has ambitions to better himself by training in law, a course that David also pursues; Uriah is under Mr. Wickfields tutelage, as David is soon to be; and Uriah is in love with Agnes, as David will be in the future. But in character, Uriah stands in dramatic contrast with David. Whereas David is innocent to the point of naivet? and responds to lifes hardships with hope and generosity, Uriah is bitter, conniving, dishonest, and manipulative, and uses underhand methods to gain his ends. Dickens makes Uriahs nature plain in his appearance and manners, giving him a demonic air: Uriah has red hair and eyes, an unhealthy skeletal appearance, and writhes like a snake whenever he is pleased. Much that Uriah says is a lie. He constantly proclaims that he is “umble,” and implies that he would not dream of presuming to rise above his lowly station in life. Uriahs insistence that he would not think of becoming a partner in Mr. Wickfields law firm carries much irony, as this is, in fact, his intention. In fact, Uriah is a social climber who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Like Mr. Murdstone and Mr. Creakle, Uriah is a controller and manipulator of others.
Dickenss characterization of Uriah Heep contains a subtle implied critique of the society of the time. The industrial revolution that began in late eighteenth-century England and reached its zenith in Dickenss lifetime had created more social mobility than before, with fortunes being made or lost on the basis of ones wits, rather than being inherited on the basis of ones birth. But society was still defined by strong class divisions. Something in Uriahs “umble” upbringing evidently convinced him that his social superiors did not like to see poor and lowborn people rising above their station; they preferred to see such people place themselves beneath them. In order to smooth his way through a class-conscious society, he learned to disguise his ambition under a veneer of humbleness. The fact that it seems largely to have worked for him is an indictment of certain upholders of traditional society. They would rather see a low-class person act with a befitting submissiveness, even if it were false, than face the threat of a potentially subversive aspirational attitude.
This novel is largely about Davids quest for a proper family, and in this section of the novel, that family begins to fall into place. Betsey and Mr. Dick are kind but responsible parent-figures; the good-hearted Agnes becomes like a sister to David; and Dr. Strong and Mr. Wickfield provide a useful education and professional mentoring. David blossoms under the loving care of these people, maintaining his essentially good and innocent nature and, now that he can focus on things other than mere survival, learning to be a productive member of society. Davids progress underscores Dickenss concern with the quality of care and education that was given to children. This theme is taken up later in the novel in relation to Uriahs upbringing, and the cynical lessons that he has taken from it – in contrast with David, who takes the best from a similarly challenging childhood.
This section introduces the character of Agnes, who is as different from Uriah Heep as it is possible to be. She is one of Dickenss almost-perfect women, and modern readers may find her too good to be true. She embodies the Victorian feminine ideal of devotion to her father and maidenly purity and modesty. She does, however, provide a useful contrast with David, in that she has a disciplined heart (to borrow the terminology of Annie Strong in Chapter XLV) to his undisciplined one. She loves deeply, but wisely, never letting the passions of her heart obscure what is right. The importance of a disciplined heart is a major theme in the novel; the lack of this quality of emotional maturity causes setbacks to many of the characters.
There are signs that all is not what it seems with Betsey and also with the Strongs. Betsey is visited by a strange man who frightens her and to whom she gives money. And there are hints that, while the Strongs seem devoted to each other, Annie may be having an affair with Jack Maldon. These as yet unexplained suggestions of trouble serve to build up suspense and to add conflict to the lives of apparently straightforward characters. Both plotlines explore Dickenss theme of married and family relationships.